THE IVORIAN POLITICAL FIELD WARMS UP WITH FORMER PRESIDENT LAURENT GBAGBO’S RETURN

NEWS ANALYSIS

BY LUC ABAKI

Warm embrace between former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, left, and current president Alassane Ouattara before their meeting at the presidential palace on July 27

Tension cooled off one bit in the afternoon of July 27 in Abidjan. President Alassane Ouattara had just met for the first time with former President Laurent Gbagbo who returned home on June 17, two years after a panel of the International Criminal Court (ICC) overturned his conviction for his role in the 2011 post-election civil war triggered by his refusal to accept the result of the 2010 election that he clearly lost. (Captured in April 2011, Gbagbo was in ICC custody for 8 years.) The much-anticipated meeting held at the presidential palace was described as “amicable” and “fraternal.”

Talking afterward to the press, both leaders said their conversation was about the release of the political prisoners in custody since the 2011 post-election crisis, and, more importantly, the need to bring about national cohesion and restore trust among Ivorians.

With this meeting, Laurent Gbagbo officially recognizes for the first time Alassane Ouattara as the president of the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire. This is a powerful and decisive act that, in a way, legitimizes and instils confidence in Alassane Ouattara whose ongoing third term Gbagbo contested no later than on July 10 during his visit with former President Henri Konan Bédié.    

However, despite this far-reaching political gesture by Ouattara and Gbagbo, which is a giant step in the process of national reconciliation, there is no doubt the former president will not miss any opportunity to play his political card in Côte d’Ivoire.

From the moment Gbagbo and his former minister of youth, Charles Blé Goudé, finally regained their freedom after a long and stormy legal-political trial that made headlines around the world, he now enjoys an irrefutable legitimacy to make his voice heard within the Ivorian opinion. The release of this formidable politician is nothing short of a political and diplomatic slap in the face for President Ouattara who sent Gbagbo to the International Criminal Court on serious charges of crimes against humanity.

Ouattara’s intention was to show the world that Gbagbo, his estrange wife Simone Gbagbo—who was tried at home by an Ivorian tribunal—and his then-Youth minister Charles Blé Goudé, were the only ones responsible for the crimes committed in Côte d’Ivoire between the start of the post-election crisis in December 2010 leading to the civil war that resulted in more than 3,000 deaths.

Both Gbagbo and Blé Goudé were cleared because of the “extreme weakness” of the evidence against them. It is therefore as a triumphant hero that Gbagbo (the only one of the two so far to get back his travel documents) returned to his home country. He was greeted by jubilant crowds at the airport and cheered all the way to his party’s headquarters, despite the teargas and barricades erected by the security services to prevent any mobilization of the masses.

A fine politician, as cunning as he is intelligent, President Gbagbo is fully aware of his aura among his fellow Ivorians. The hero’s welcome he received on his return on June 17 is sufficient proof that he has not lost his notoriety or his popularity. He therefore plays seriously on his audience, typical of an African fighter eager to occupy his place on the Ivorian political scene, and, above all, to leave a real impact in the minds of African youth.

That is why, at the height of his 76 years and even before meeting Alassane Ouattara, the former Ivorian president used the wedding of the daughter of Jean-Pierre Bemba, his former fellow detainee at the ICC, as a pretext to travel to Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, on July 2nd, to meet high-ranking officials, including President Félix Tshisekedi in person.

Laurent Gbagbo is a man of symbolism both through his language and his actions. The audience he granted to Roland Lumumba, son of the late Patrice Lumumba, in Kinshasa, is further proof of the Pan-Africanist aura that the man of Gagnoa now intends to embody for the rest of his life in the world of the living.

He really presents himself as an almost unbeatable politician. Even the international justice has been unable to beat him. Thus, in front of the traditional leaders of his locality, Laurent Gbagbo ironized on the trial at the ICC, saying that his torment may have been long and harsh, but he triumphed as a real fighter. All his actions and gestures, since his return, are careful and well thought out, with a political touch.

Former Ivorian president Henri Konan Bedie, left, welcomes former president Laurent Gbagbo to his residence in the city of Daoukro in Cote d’Ivoire

At his meeting on July 10th in Daoukro with his elder, former President Henri Konan Bédié, leader of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (P.D.C.I.), he demonstrated, by his speech, that he can do nothing but politics, as long as his name and his persona are closely linked to this activity. Therefore, it came as a legitimate act for him and Henri Konan Bédié to call for national reconciliation and a new democratic project in Côte d’Ivoire.

Despite his decisive meeting, finally, with Alassane Ouattara, Gbagbo, as a savvy politician, still holds the belief that Ouattara has been the main cause of the slew of crises that have shaken   Côte d’Ivoire since 1993, the year the founding father, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, passed away. Gbagbo clearly stated that in Daoukro, like an alert demonstrative of his state of mind before his audience on July 27 with President Ouattara.

At the very least, since his return after ten years of absence, Laurent Gbagbo revives the Ivorian political field that sunk into lethargy after the presidential and legislative elections of October 2020 and February 2021 hastily organized by the Ouattara regime.

But, at his advanced age, does Gbagbo sill have the means to fight such a tough fight? Several important facts raise doubt and skepticism about this.

First of all, his dispute with his wife, Simone Gbagbo, his long-time fellow-fighter that he is in the process of divorcing for reasons that nobody really knows at this point in time. The announcement of the divorce process has thrown fear among party members, supporters and sympathizers who saw this couple as an inspiring model. The reason is simple: Simone Gbagbo embodies no less the political struggle in Côte d’Ivoire than her husband; she is a true figurehead who is considered in the same way as Gbagbo and Blé Goudé as the main authors of the post-election crisis of 2011.

Despite her husband’s aura of a true statesman, this divorce process is bound to weaken him. This new development came on top of the lingering crisis within his party, the Popular Ivorian Front, F.P.I. broken into two branches. One of the branches, officially recognized as legal, is headed by his former Prime Minister, Affi N’Guessan, who is considered as a rebel and opportunist who wanted to stab Laurent Gbagbo in the back while the latter was in fierce struggle with the international justice.

Fundamentally, Laurent Gbagbo’s credibility will play out in his ability to merge all these scattered energies into a common vision that transcends the current cleavages and divisions, to be able to regroup and vitalize himself for the serious upcoming fights with President Ouattara and his regime.